I am not a born designer

I may not be design-challenged either, but creating aesthetically pleasing viz is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I sense that because of this I will never produce a ‘work-of-art’ viz with true ‘wow’ factor – and in some ways this doesn’t really bother me. I know that my strengths lie elsewhere, so as long as my design doesn’t undermine the analytical content of my work, I should be able to achieve my ‘viz goals’.

That said, I’ve realised that just because I’m not a natural and will never be the best doesn’t mean I shouldn’t build up my design muscles. It’s also a little tempting to assume that design is a different game from technical Tableau building skills that are studied and learned. Designing ability isn’t just something that someone either has or hasn’t innately, but also a very tangible craft that can and should be studied and improved. At the risk of pushing an analogy too far, before the Beatles revolutionised western popular music they spent years practising their craft by imitating their favourite bands of the day. Of course they had talent – but that wasn’t all it took by any means.

This may seem obvious to you, but for me this was a gradual realisation. And so, for a little while now I’ve been considering how to hone my design skills. Here’s a few things I’ve learned so far.

1. Less is almost always more

For me this is absolutely key. I’ve always been aware that this is a golden rule, and yet quite often I have still chosen to break it. It’s tempting to assume that to make something that dazzles, you need to add visual elements to a viz. That’s a risky game to play. There’s a high probability that more ‘stuff’ will detract from the analysis and come across as chart junk. Be a minimalist – especially in the early days as you hone you skills.

2. Think carefully about colours and don’t use too many

Colours are a powerful tool to aid understanding, but they can also muddy the water for your audience. Too many colours can be confusing and, aesthetically speaking, loud and garish. I increasingly use shades of colours rather than different ones. Play around with opacity and borders as well – they can make a difference.

My highly colourful application viz on the right, contrasted with a newer MakeoverMonday

3. Do you really need that extra filter?

It’s so tempting to want to throw in additional filters or parameters into viz – especially when you’re still in the early days of your Tableau romance. I was certainly guilty of this. I would add in filter after filter, and because it’s so easy to do I would convince myself that it enriched my analysis. It doesn’t always. Slicing and dicing the data in many different ways can by exciting in highly exploratory viz, but a lot of the time it’s unnecessary, dilutes analysis and lists of filters are quite unattractive.

4. Generally speaking

In general, my approach has been to pay close attention to viz that I find stylish and try to identify the specific reasons that make them so. This leads me to pinpoint often small features that make a big difference: the formatting of a text box, the positioning of legends and filters, white space, etc.

At first it can be daunting to look at what’s already out there – the most incredible viz of the days as well as the effortlessly attractive work created by DS peers. But you have to remember that you’re most likely at the very start of your viz designing career, and that even though you may feel inferior when it comes to design, there’s actually no way to know how good you could become. The only certainty is that giving up altogether will prevent you from ever finding out. So don’t dismiss design as ‘something you’re not good at’ or treat it as an afterthought once you’ve done your awesome analysis. I think you’d be doing yourself a disservice in the long run.